Karen Koning AbuZayd delivered these remarks at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.
November 13, 2006
Karen Koning AbuZayd
In her address to the Middle East Institute's 60th Anniversary Banquet, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Karen Koning AbuZayd discussed the plight of the Palestinian refugees dating from 1948 and that of the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Her remarks detailed the shortcomings of the international community's policies in the Middle East peace process and highlighted several ways to expedite a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Karen Koning AbuZayd opened her speech with some personal observations of the Palestinian people gleaned from her past six years of living in the Gaza Strip. The Commissioner-General of UNRWA commented that the Palestinian refugees of 1948 are a multidimensional symbol, a prism through which one can better understand the experience of a political refugee. In many ways they exemplify the universal condition of a people forced from their homeland, but they simultaneously represent a unique type of refugee. The Palestinian refugees are a people who, sixty years later, still struggle to survive and have managed to subsist largely because of foreign aid. In addition, AbuZayd observed that they personify self-reliance and stoic resilience in the face of oppression and marginalization. In the deteriorating conditions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the remaining Palestinian population shares this profound sense of loss felt by the refugees. In describing a recent visit to a home in Beit Hanoun where seven members of the family were killed in the most recent Israeli incursions into Gaza, AbuZayd emphasized that civilian casualties only fuel the conflict. She argued that the vicious cycle of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians only serves to exacerbate this sense of loss and keeps fresh the wounds suffered by the refugees.
AbuZayd then explained that the Palestinian people are astute observers of the international political scene. Not lost on the Palestinians was the hypocrisy of the de facto sanctions imposed on the democratically-elected Hamas government, at the behest of the United States and the European Union. Moreover, the Palestinians are increasingly disillusioned because they recognize the indiscriminate nature in which these sanctions affect both the civilian population and the already fragile Palestinian economy. AbuZayd explained that unfulfilled commitments and the elusiveness of peace have further disheartened the Palestinians.
Challenging the international community to reevaluate its longstanding policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, AbuZayd argued that demands to renounce violence should be directed at both parties. She advocated that political actors must be the ones to restore the peace process, explaining that military and militant action on both sides are ineffective since the conflict is primarily political. Moreover, AbuZayd indicated several of the strengths within the fabric of Palestinian society that have been overlooked when engaging in peace talks. Among these strengths are the close-knit, kinship-oriented nature of Palestinian society and its emphasis on Islamic morality. "Unfortunately," AbuZayd commented, "that which is most valuable is often underrated." She contended that the international community neglects to encourage the positive aspects of Palestinian society.
AbuZayd concluded that equal demands must be made, and equal respect offered, to both sides. She asserted that this situation shames the entire world, as it demeans humanity amidst hypocritical demands for the respect of human rights. Her comments were received with a standing ovation.
About this Event
Karen Koning AbuZayd offered these remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on November 13, 2006.
This event summary was written by Alex Maass, an Amherst College graduate who majored in Middle Eastern History and French Language and Literature. He is currently interning in the Publications Department of the Middle East Institute. Bryn Sedlacek, a Sultan Qaboos Center Intern, served as peer-editor for this summary. She graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in political science and a minor in Islamic studies.